In this episode, Sidney Castillo talks with Dr. Carsten Wilke about his approach to Jewish studies and his research on the development of Jewish mysticism in early modern Europe.

About this episode

Area studies often are defined by their object of inquiry in substantive terms: the study of a more or less defined set of cultural characteristics or civilizations encompassed in a historical, geographical, or linguistic horizon. Among these, one of the area studies that first emerged was Jewish studies, which focuses on the study of Judaism and Jewish communities throughout the world in different historical times. And while it is certainly important to study Jewish history on its own terms, this can hardly be done without observing the cultural context in which that history developed and took form. In this week’s podcast, Dr. Carsten Wilke talks to Sidney Castillo about the different processes that Judaism and Jewish identities underwent throughout modern European history. Wilke first briefly presents the scope of research of Jewish studies and then outlines how Jewish identity, belief, and community have been shaped by elements of local culture in Europe and beyond. To further delve into this relationship, Wilke discusses the topic of his presentation at the international conference “Imperial Mysticisms: Piety and Power in Early Modern Empires from a Global Perspective” held at Central European University last November 2019. There he analyzed how the spread and development of modern Kabbalah corresponded with the migration of Sephardic Jews from Iberian empires (Portuguese and Spanish) to Ottoman Palestine. No doubt this podcast will spark interest in those who are studying/researching in area studies, mysticism, or early modern history, and are actively looking for ways of problematizing their own scope of research.

A transcript for this episode is available below

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How can Jewish Studies help us rethink concepts like "the political"? In this response to our episode featuring Carsten Wilke interviewed by Sidney Castillo, Jonathan Garb highlights additional aspects of "the rise of kabbalah as a potent cultural force in the early modern period" that challenge the limits of cross-cultural comparison.

Politics, Kabbalah, and Beyond: Jewish Studies and the Study of Religion [transcript]

Politics, Kabbalah, and Beyond: Jewish Studies and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Carsten Wilke (23 November 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by David McConeghy and Breann Fallon

Audio and transcript available at:


Judaism, kabbalah, politics, medieval studies

Sidney Castillo Cárdenas (SCC) 00:01

So, it’s after a long week of discussion last week in the conference Imperial Mysticism here at CU Budapest. Now I’m sitting down with Professor Carsten Wilke from the Center for Religious Studies at the same university. Professor Wilke, it is very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project.

Carsten Wilke (CW) 00:22

Yeah, thank you for the conversation. I’m a faculty member of the CU History Department in the Department of Medieval Studies. I am teaching in particular in the Jewish Studies specialization that we have at CU and I am presently the director of the Center for Religious Studies. So, my field of specialization is Jewish history in particular Jewish religious and cultural history from the Middle Ages to the modern period.

SCC 00:52

Excellent. Indeed. Now we have like many colors to do because of so far on the website we don’t have anything on Jewish Studies, so we hope that you will be our introduction to the field in some way. So without further ado, I would like to ask a follow up question. What does the field of Jewish Studies encompass? How is it approached by different disciplines?

CW 01:18

So Jewish Studies is established in a number of universities around the around the world. It is one of the classical area studies, that means a discipline that is not defined by its particular approach like in sociology, but by its object. That means, the Jewish culture, the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, however, you might define it through history. And we have here an object that crosses human history through a large number of new millennia from the Bible to the present day. This is something peculiar that has practically no geographical limits and that has been defined, as I alluded to, in different ways through history. We have an ethnic definition in the, in antiquity, we have mainly corporative definition in the Middle Ages, a religious definition in classical modernity and through Zionism, a now a national definition as well. So we have an object that is that is changing and this is the particular challenge of Jewish Studies that we have to spend a larger chronological width. We have to spend geography to a large extent and also we have an object its own self-definition is changing is changing over history. So that the definition, the definition of Jewish Studies, as area studies is in a way problematic. It is not like Islamic Studies, for example, which has a much clearer definition with respect to the religious message of Islam. But we have in a way, a challenge that needs to be, that needs to be solved from the point of view of the different approaches that we need in this field. That means we have a cultural tradition, that very much is based on written culture, on texts on the biblical tradition and exegesis, as well as some legal traditions. So, we have a basis in philology. We have a tradition that has expressed itself mainly in diaspora history. So, there is a sociological factor of minority history that needs to be taken into account. And we have, we are dealing with a cultural tradition that has not had, for the largest part of its history or political center, that means that ethnographic expressions, that cultural traditions are much more important for the larger part of Jewish history than political and, for example, military history, centralized cultural language, and so on. So, Jewish Studies, I would say, cannot be defined by its by area alone because this area is very, very broad and very discontinuous, but also by a specific approach that marries philology, to sociology and ethnography.

SCC 05:18

So, it’s problematic in itself to try to study Jewish history or Jewish communities, because oftentimes it doesn’t overlap the religious identity with the ethnic one, contrary to what happens in Islamic Studies, would you say that’s the difference between the two as well.

CW 05:37

So, the creation of the Jewish collectivity predates our concepts of religion and ethnicity, of nationality of course. So, the question of whether Judaism is an ethnicity or religion is a wrong question I would say, because we are dealing with, with a tradition that has gone through a number of phases, that has had to define itself as a Diaspora tradition, with respect to the mainstream ideas of religion and of nationality, but which cannot be defined entirely with respect to one of them. Islam, for example, arose at a moment in which the late antique concept of faith, of salvation, of religious community and even of the Christian Church existed, existed already and formed this, this community – shaped it to a large extent – while Judaism is very largely defined by its biblical precedents, which have been active also, it’s history that are, as we all know, much, much older than this latency conception for religion and that have resisted it over the ages.

SCC 07:15

So to try to delve more into the subject matter, I would like to ask that, based your research is situated within the history of Jewish communities in Europe from medieval to modern times. How can we understand the role throughout European history? I think it’s a very broad question, but to situate a little bit for what you have been doing so far, useful for us.

CW 07:37

So, I have been interested in particular in the interaction of the Jewish diaspora community with the environing religion and cultures. So my focus has been on Jewish-Christian relations on the way in which Jews in a Christian majority environment have come to the define their own tradition and specificity and with a way also in which Jewish norms to which legal and cultural patterns have adopted influences, elements from, from outside and made it a core element of one’s own, one’s own cultural definition. So, to give an example, I’ve been working on the reform of the Rabbinate in the period of emancipation between the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century, in which the position and the cultural profile of the modern Rabbi became came to be defined with respect to the 19th century academic, academic idea of critical academic scholarship and in which a very peculiar synthesis between traditional Talmudic learning and exegesis inherited from medieval and early modern Judaism, and the specific German tradition of stories took place in a number of quite innovative conceptions, and what I study is the sociological composition of a new elite. And I have been interested also in the spread of this idea of the Jewish religious authority spread of it from Central Europe to other, to other parts of the world. The United States for example, Western Europe.

SCC 10:12

Particularly, there has been a was quite known the case of Jews in Spain 15-16th century, you have done research upon that as well. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that.

CW 10:26

So, that that is another period in Jewish European Jewish history that I have been very much interested in. It is perhaps an extreme case of Jewish-Christian relations when a large number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews we are speaking about tens or hundreds of thousands were forced to convert to Christianity, but we’re not fully accepted in, in Christian society, in due to social prejudice also to the sociological dynamics of such a such a large group, and were able to develop their own religious tradition, clandestine largely, within the Iberian countries, they had to sometime in the seven in 15th century Spain and in early 16th century Portugal, in which this tradition could develop without persecution and the Inquisition arrived these both, in these both countries and clandestine Judaism among the so called “conversos,” the converted the Jews to Christianity, played an important role in shaping, in shaping their self-perception. That means that the Jewish religion as it was perceived by the by the conversos, which was much more focused on, on faith than on practice, and when these parts of these populations went to exile fleeing the Inquisition, coming to, to Italy, to the Ottoman Empire, to France to the Netherlands to England, building up a network of communities, which was at the same time, an important colonial merchant network. At this moment, the definition of religion through faith stayed very powerful among those communities. So, it was not cultural or everyday life traditions, that formed and shaped to Judaism, and this was often the case in the Middle Ages, but mainly the conviction of a simple form of religious principles. So, they try to defend Judaism in a dogmatic way in a philosophical way, by finding out what are the ways of thought that distinguish Judaism from Christianity. And this gave rise to a large body of literature, partly printed, partly polemical, clandestine manuscripts, which is a literature that I’m very much interested in, because it takes over. It takes over influences and patterns from Christian literature of this age of reformation, confessionalization into religious polemics and tries to put Judaism on the map of the incipient pluralistic religious relationships in early modern Europe.

SCC 14:01

So, we will say that there are like some identifiable main, time timeframes that arises throughout European history that the history of the Jewish community have been very important in also shaping the history of overall Europe.

CW 14:17

This is right and this has to do within Christianity but within Islam as well, in the constituent in reference to Judaism, but even within those religious traditions, so that whatever, whatever happens in Judaism becomes relevant for Christian religious thinkers, but also to some extent for too for religious life within the majority because it connects to certain ideas that are inside the, the origins of Christianity and Islam themselves. Let’s take an example, the influence of Kabbalah. When Kabbalah spreads in the, in the Renaissance among Jews with the printing of kabbalistic books, this becomes interesting for Christians as well because this method of esoteric exegesis of the scriptures can be adapted with a certain philological investment by Christian exegetes, intellectuals, theologian, theologians, to Christian theology as well.

SCC 15:42

Speaking of which, the Jewish history issue in the Iberian Peninsula, we can also try to find traces over the Americas, that you were based in Mexico as well in Mexican archives. How has this articulations happened in the influence between, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas.

CW 16:03

So, I spoke about this very ambivalent religiosity within the Iberian converso population. That is, those Jewish populations that were forced to convert to Christianity. And what becomes important for Spanish and Portuguese in America are especially the descendants of the Portuguese Jews, who were forced to convert to Christianity in 1497. So, this is very, very shortly before the Iberian conquest of the, of the Americas and many of the vice kingdoms in Spanish America became places of refuge for persecuted conversos after the establishment of the Inquisition in, in Portugal. They went there, partly to remote places in which, to which the Mexican Inquisition that had been founded there in the 16th century already could not so easily penetrate, so that certain communities that arose in various parts of the American hemisphere could more easily develop a social life, then, then their mother communities in the Iberian countries. So, we have there especially in the 17th century in the first half of the 17th century, in various parts of Mexico, especially in the northern parts in the more recent settlements of Europeans there, but also in the Andean regions, we have their communities by conversos who continue religious traditions inherited from Judaism, and that involve to some extent, also local populations of Amerindian stock and Afro-Americans. So, this is a population that is quite mixed with many different, different origins from three different country, different continents, which is repressed in the middle of the 17th century by a cruel persecution by the Inquisition, which has the effect that most of these communities were extinguished but which has the effect that we know much about them, so the archives of the Inquisition, that for Mexico have been preserved in a large quantity. And after this persecution, there, there are in some remote places, communities, family traditions that survive, which is particularly fascinating for, for Brazil, in which until the 18th century and even beyond, there are crypto, crypto-Jewish communities in very complex syncretistic relationships with local communities of Christian but also of non-Christian origin that are in some cases remarkable by, even today.

SCC 19:53

Perfect. So ,continue picking up what you say about the Kabbalah, I would like to ask the following: The recent conference of Imperial mysticism, back in power in early modern empires from our perspective, hey, let’s see this last week, so if you remember December of 2019, you talked about the intricacies of the Jewish Kabbalah in political cosmology for the early modern period. Could share some of your main finds in this regard.

CW 20:22

So, the main idea behind this conference, came up in conversation that I had with my colleague, Dr Fallas, who is a specialist of Eastern Sufism, especially in northern India, and we remarked that there is a particular moment in the formation of the large, early modern empires, the so called “gunpowder empires,” in the latter part of the 16th century, which at the same time saw a spread of mystical spirituality. So, this is clear for, for Sufism, then Sufi orders play an important role in the 16th century in all the Islamic empires. But practically at the same time, we have the last spread of Kabbalah, of Jewish mysticism from its new center in Ottoman Palestine. So, the question that drove us to organize in this conference was, how could it, how could such a movement towards the internalization of religion take place in a moment, during a moment in which political power was spreading various continents, over various religious people communities in all religions, majority and minority alike. So. the 1560, 1570s, which saw the spread of Kabbalistic spirituality from Safed, but also from Italy, where Kabbalistic literature was first printed and became, to some extent, popular among Jewish circles after having been for centuries along a esoteric tradition, in very small circles, how could it be that this time was also the moment of the major spread of Christian mysticism in major, mainly the Spanish, the Spanish Empire. So we have these new orders founded by these important personalities and Teresa, St. John of the Cross in Spain and then very rapidly all over Hispanic America that plays an important role in the mission in the Christianization of larger environments, but virtually at the same time in the Balkans, in India, we see also Sufi Muslim orders that do very similar things, namely integrating populations from Eastern Christianity from, from Hinduism, that either joined the ruling Islamic populations or are ruled by them in a, in a relationship that is often quite tolerant of local, of local religious traditions. So, the interpretation of the spread of Kabbalah. It has been since Gershom Scholem, and another historians of Kabbalah very much focused on the, on the concept of Jewish exile of the Jewish it’s also from Spain in 1492. of the suffering of the exiles, which means placing, placing Jews in a situation of political passivity, which is then solved by an intellectual spiritual moment of creativity that tries to come to terms, to cope with this moment of political oppression, through mysticism, through an internalization of a faith, garnering moments of resistance. But if we look at this phenomena, this phenomena of Kabbalah in a larger perspective, in an interreligious framework, we see that precisely among those populations, namely, Catholic Christianity, Iberian Catholicism, that was responsible for the persecution of precisely those Jewish exiles we have the same phenomena of religious internalization, of religious spirituality in an animistic sense, so that the question of persecution and suffering is perhaps not enough to, to explain what happened in those communities. The, if you want to persecute, persecuting society, and the persecuted exiles alike, so that we need probably a more comprehensive historical framework. It has to do with a particular situation of empire building, early modern empire building on a global scale. And this is the evolution that we wanted to discuss, and that we encouraged our colleagues to engage in from a number of geographical, of historical perspectives alike. So, we managed to focus on a particularly important period in imperial history, namely the latter part of the 16th and the early years of the 17th century where in all these different religious environment, we find a similar development, a similar rise of movements, that from a concentration of inward looking spirituality come to a spread of religions and populations that are in widespread regions on the periphery in these empires.

SCC 27:14

One of the things mentioned is that these are formulation of Kabbalistic knowledge was on after exposure to religious in Iberian kingdoms, they move to the Ottoman, Ottoman settlements as particularly Ottoman Palestine. Based on that, who was like, was there a dialogue between or was they allowed to build settlements based on different religions, I mean, Ottomans were conditionally Muslims how was this religious relationship between different religious communities within the Ottoman Empire.

CW 27:55

So, the Sephardic Jews are a particularly interesting population. So far as they move between the two dominant empires of the Mediterranean region. So, they come from, from Spain and Portugal, so those two countries that found it, the first seaborne colonial empires and they move to the rising empire in the Islamic world, the Ottoman Empire in which they occupy important functions in the economy, in the economic, the commercial development, the industry, especially textile industry, with technologies that they bring in from, from Europe also, for example, they are the founders of book printing in the Ottoman Empire. They have a certain role in the development of military technology, especially artillery, that with techniques that they bring in from Spain. And they also play a role in diplomacy in state administration, through a number of important families that gain influence at the court of the sultans. So, this led to a reflection also, to a self-reflection on the position of Jews in the Jewish community, in the conflict between those empires, and quite a number of those Spanish Jewish leaders established in the Ottoman Empire, very, take a very pronounced pro-Islamic and anti-Christian stance. That means that even though in their own culture they are as I said very much influenced by the Christian reformation, counter -eformation environment, they take sides with Islam, where, where their protection as a minority community is much better guaranteed, as in the Iberian environment, which is based upon religious unification. So, in my reading of Kabbalistic texts, I claim that this also shapes the way in which esoteric cosmologies see the origin and successive creation of the world that the experience of a change, of change of power of a translatio imperii, that means a shift of political power from one imperial tradition to another or this plays a role in the Jewish self-perception as well.

SCC 31:19

And so, in this sort of percusion is the kabbalistic text, but also how these, the reading of these takes for the posterior generations within the Ottoman Empire or within the same century, how has the reading of the text impacted the way that they could relate to one another within these larger society of the Ottoman Empire.

CW 31:44

So, this is a, if you refer to Kabbalah as I suppose, this is a process that takes a number of generations that pursuit itself from its it origins were the printing of the of the Zohar in the 1550-60s, to the outburst of the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the Ottoman Empire in the 1660s, in such a sense that kabbalistic spirituality, with its peculiar link between speculations on cosmology, on theosophy, and practices, new rituals, new ways of living together in study, in study circles, in ritual communities. Well, this spreads out to larger parts of the Jewish population. And we’re not speaking about the Ottoman Empire alone, and its centers in Istanbul and Salonica, in Ottoman Palestine, but also across the borders of empire. So, the peculiar development that takes place in the 17th century is that there is a spirituality that crosses community borders, between Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but also between Jews living in the Ottoman Empire on the one hand, and the Hapsburg Empire, on the other hand, so there is a, from the 16th century onward, the Kabbalistic school from in Prague and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, so it’s associated mainly with the figure of the MaHaRal, Rabbi Loew, of Prague that practically at the same time received certain traditions of Kabbalah that are new, that come from 16th century reflections and that originated in Italy and in the Ottoman Empire. So, we have there a certain poignancy of Jewish thought that is elaborated and that explains to some extent why a messianic pretender like Sabbatai Zevi could have followers on both sides of the split European countries between Islam and Christianity.

SCC 34:33

Interesting. So, we’re almost out of time. But if you would like to give some concluding remarks for our audience it would be great.

CW 34:45

So, the very impressive experience that I made personally in the conference in discussing with outstanding scholars specializing on so many different environments was that there is a challenge, there is a new challenge of developing concepts that can fit to observations made in discipline or traditions that are quite far apart from each other, but that this challenge has, to a certain extent, its solutions and its concepts and ways of ways of meeting it that can overcome certain artificial boundaries that we that we have in our academic life, especially those divisions between Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Christian history and theology, that we are dealing with certain, with certain phenomena, especially the phenomenon of religious internalization in the 16th century, the reform of religious orders in the sense of spirituality that is common, but that cannot be adequately described with the, with the concepts that we use, as for example, mysticism or heterodoxy, religious reformation, and so on. That means that we have a terminology that we have a certain span of really scholarly expression that we need to define, that we need to adapt in order to make them fit as tools of communication between, between scholars in a global horizon. I had particularly interesting and fruitful conversations with a colleague from China who is studying the rise of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism during a period in the late Ming Empire, that means again, the late 16th century, and that was in the after the turn of the 17th century, overcome by a renaissance of Confucianism, so that we have here a spread of spirituality that can to some extent be compared to the mysticism that, that takes place among Christians, Muslims and Jews farther West . But we cannot simply adapt our grid, our terminological grid to these to these phenomena. But we should try to define our own criteria in order to, in order to describe those phenomena that are manifestly alike that are contemporary, that are that are linked to empire, but that have not yet been described, because the adequate terminology is still missing and this is something that we hope to achieve and to accomplish in the coming discussions and I hope the publications that we have decided to start at this occasion.

SCC 38:53

Excellent. The themes are very good. We’re wrapping up the interview and I thank you Professor Wilke for being with us in the RSP. And we hope to have you again soon.

CW 39:02

Thank you.

Citation Info:

Carsten Wilke and Sidney Castillo. 2020. “Politics, Kabbalah, and Beyond: Jewish Studies and the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 23 November 2020. Transcribed by David McConeghy and Breann Fallon. Version 1.1, 23 November 2020. Available at:

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